If anyone can rival Chuck Berry’s claim as the most important architect of rock n’ roll, it’s Little Richard. Both were electric personalities and performers –Berry with his guitar, Richard at the piano — and sonic innovators who blended boogie-woogie and rhythm-and-blues in the ’50s into an entirely new kind of music. Both were among the first ten inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and they maintained a friendly rivalry over many years playing together over who, exactly, founded rock n’ roll.
Today, Richard, 84, rarely speaks to the press, but he chatted with Billboard about his dear friend, speaking over the phone from Nashville while making a stop to get a sandwich at a drive-in. As told to Rebecca Milzoff.
Little Richard: I just feel sad about Chuck going. I didn’t even know he was sick. I lost a really great friend — one of my best friends in music. I love Chuck. I’ve been with Chuck all my life, really.
We went around and toured Europe and America together. Most of my favorite moments were watching him just do the duck walk and play. Sometimes his daughter came out on the road with us. I remember one day he gave me a gold horseshoe to hold — “Feel this. How do you like it?” — and then he said “Okay, now give it back!” I said “Chuck, you’re not an Indian giver!” “No, I’m not!” He was one of those kind of guys. He would always say to me, “You got some pretty skin, Richard.” I would just say, “Shut up, Chuck. Next joke!”
It was some beautiful times we had together. One or two times I played the piano on some of his songs. He’s a rocker, he could really rock for real. He ain’t just jiving around. He really puts it down and he picks it up and throws it out to the audience. He was the greatest rock n’ roll musician though he could play more than that, he could play all types of music. I learned those rock n’ roll riffs he had. He had the kind of riff that makes your big toe shoot up in your boots.
He was a real thoughtful person in the business, and what I learned from Chuck is a lot of business things. Get paid before you go on stage. Get your money in front. And he stuck to that. There were some honest good promoters, but some people, you had to get it in front or you wouldn’t get it at all.
When Chuck and I played together, Chuck always wanted to close the show, and I wanted to close it too. We were always banging at that. “I’m the star of the show!” “No, I’m the star of the show!” Really, Chuck was the star of the show. But we’d be onstage together and we sang together. I’d tell him I’m the creator of rock n’ roll, he’d say “I am,” but I have to admit, he’s older than me, he came before me.
The truth is the truth. Chuck Berry, his songs are rock n’ roll standards, and mine are classics also. “Roll Over Beethoven,” “School Days,” and here I come with “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Long Tall Sally.” Chuck had more hits than I had. But we both contributed. It’s been a blessing and a lesson, and I thank God for letting me live at this time so I could be a part of it.